During the relatively calm southwest monsoon seasons of 2016 and 2017 Indonesian company, PT Cosmix Asia, excavated an ancient shipwreck in Lingga Strait, between the islands of Lingga and Sumatra in Riau province, Indonesia.
As is usually the case, the wreck was discovered by fishermen and looted extensively before the official excavation got underway. The discovery was initially referred to as the Riau Wreck, specifically in online discussions dealing with the ceramics cargo (Koh 2017). However, as there are several ancient shipwrecks in Riau waters, this site is now uniquely known as the Lingga Wreck.
Importantly, the excavation was carried out in compliance with Indonesian law. The Governor of Riau issued an excavation license to PT Cosmix Asia after receiving a recommendation from the Jakarta-based Panitia Nasional Pengakatan dan Pemanfaatan Benda Berharga Asal Muatan Kapal yang Tenggelam (PANAS BMKT), or the National Committee for the Excavation and Utilisation of Valuable Objects from Sunken Ships.
The Cosmix team gridded the site, recorded the recovered artefacts, and took in-situ photographs and video. With permission from the relevant Riau authorities, the author investigated the Lingga Wreck post-excavation, during the last week of October 2017. While the primary aim was to determine the origin of the ship, it was also beneficial to observe various ceramic and artefact types in-situ in order to confirm the provenance of objects stored in the company warehouse. Of course, the in-situ remnants were mostly shards, but these proved adequate for type identification. The accumulated observations have been used here, in conjunction with historical information and contemporaneous shipwreck comparisons, to establish the historical context of the Lingga Wreck.
To some, the publication of this report may be seen as supporting and encouraging treasure hunting. The recovery of the cargo without archaeological supervision and documentation is akin to looting. The context of the artefacts has largely been lost. The ship construction details will never be known. The sale of artefacts is strictly forbidden under the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
However, Indonesia is not a signatory of the UNESCO Convention. Nor is any other country in Southeast Asia, except Cambodia. Nor is the USA, the UK, or Australia. Indonesia does not fund archaeological shipwreck excavation. Nor does any other Southeast Asian country apart from Thailand, and to a small extent, the Philippines. Instead they rely on private funding, which is generally attracted by allowing for the sale of part of the recovered cargo (see Flecker 2017b). There are trained maritime archaeologists in Indonesia, but the government did not insist on their participation in this instance.
There are very few published reports on shipwrecks in Southeast Asia. Virtually nothing has made it to print since 2012 (see Flecker 2012). Apart from out and out looting, massive trawl nets are destroying the wrecks that remain. Any new findings must be cherished, even if the circumstances are imperfect. Historians and the interested public should not be deprived. The Lingga Wreck may now be added to the list of shipwrecks that contribute to our growing knowledge of Asian shipping and trade during the pre-modern period.